PROFILE Does accidental celebrity mean never having to say you're sorry? An aspiring entertainer realizes some of his blond ambitions while trying to keep his head above water.
BY MIM UDOVITCH
PHOTOGRAPHS BY MARY ELLEN MARK
Photo Editor Jennifer Crandall
"It blows me away sometimes that there's an entire group of people out there who have no idea I had any kind of life before all of this," says Kato Kaelin. He is lying in the sunshine by the pool of the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, and through no fault (or virtue) of his own, he is getting recognized. This is partly because he is so easily recognizable. ("For some reason," says Kato's publicist, David Crowley, "people really lock onto the hair.") It is, of course, always curiously compelling to lay eyes upon the flesh-and-blood original of an image with which you're already in some way intimate - the tendency to stare at celebrities probably springs as much from trying to banish the sense of optical illusion as it does from curiosity. In Kato's case, though, this response - "Hey, I know you!" - is unusually amplified. Through no fault (or virtue) of his own, he is known, as few celebrities outside the British royal family are, not for what he does but for who he is.
Yet, as he so astutely observes, an entire group of people have no idea he had any kind of life before all this. All this, of course, is the renown that has attended his every move since the fact of his being a house guest of O.J. Simpson's and a former tenant of Nicole Brown Simpson's in the 18 months leading up to and including the murders that made him a witness in judge Ito's courtroom and a star in the tabloid press. Thus, Kato's fame is personal but almost wholly divorced from any - let alone his - human reality, as if in the minds of the public, he had no more history or complexity than was strictly necessary to play his small part in the Simpson narrative; as if he were simply the conveniently self-sustaining, real-life equivalent of Amanda on Melrose Place. After years as an aspiring actor, with a part in a grade-Z comedy like Beach Fever here, a vignette in the soft-core video release Surf, Sand and Sex there, in a reversal of the old formula, he really is Kato Kaelin and did not just play one on TV.
It would be inaccurate to say that Kato's life is completely changed. He's 36 years old, an age few reach without acquiring some more or less immutable character traits. (As his ex-wife, Cyndi Patterson, says, "He's one of a kind, that's for sure." His secret? He conditions, then shampoos.) Despite 15 or so years in California, in most outward respects Kato is still a nice, if loopy, Catholic boy from Wisconsin who barely drinks, rarely curses and, although he enjoys the ladies, is more flirtatious than predatory. On the night we meet, over dinner, I compliment him on his watch, and he tells me a long, digressive tale regarding its provenance, about some girl he met at a party and spent the night with in a hotel in Washington, D.C. "We didn't sleep together," says Kato, hazel eyes wide, "because it wasn't right. It's just that it's good to have company in a hotel room, you know, when you're lonely, it's nice to have someone to hug." And the strange thing is, nice Catholic boy that he is, he's probably telling the loopy truth.
However, he is now a nice Catholic boy from the Midwest whose insane fame gets him invited to parties - or, as they say in L.A., functions - premieres and sporting events of every sort. He was the hit of the Radio and Television Correspondents' dinner in Washington, D.C., last March, where he was besieged by everyone from Dan Rather to Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala. He has become friends with such notables as Charlie Sheen and Politically Incorrect's Bill Maher. The highly reclusive, legendary music producer Phil Spector, whom Kato met at a recording session, is said to have adored him to the point that when Kato went to the bathroom, Spector wouldn't resume recording until he returned to the booth. Nor is his fan base limited to the rich and famous. The glass table in his arid furnished apartment in, as his 11-year-old daughter, Tiffany, puts it, "the bad part of Beverly Hills" is covered with notes and letters and Magic Marker-on-paper-towel portraits bearing words of love and thanks from Katophiles from just about every walk of life: retirement-home residents whom he has visited, trial junkies, love-struck girls and children from pretty much every demographic all over the country.
"You know, it's like being with the Beatles when you go out with him," says comedian Louie Anderson, who helped Kato put together a stand-up routine and try it out in the clubs, with a view to having him as an opening act in Vegas. ("I saw he had done this thing at a mall in Indiana, and 18,000 people showed up, so I called my manager and said, 'Call Kato and see if he'd like to work in Vegas, because I'd like 18,000 people to show up.' ") Although by the time the Vegas date rolled around, Kato had gone on to his current gig, hosting a two-hour call-in show on L.A. radio station KLSX, the sheer dimensions of his celebrity have, if anything, increased. "I'm still always amazed at how many people come up to him," says Anderson. "I've never seen fame like that. You either, huh?"
Me either, and especially based on so little. Even 10 years ago, this very '90s kind of celebrity, owing as much to the now-global reach of video technology as to the grasp of its object's charms, would not have been possible. The common wisdom on Kato is that he is opportunistically milking his association with tragedy for personal gain, and while he certainly isn't shunning attention to become a vagrant and wanderer of the earth like some sort of latter-day Cain (except without, it cannot be pointed out too emphatically, having actually slain anyone himself), nor does he seek it at all costs. "In the beginning we were getting all kinds of offers," says his agent, Raphael Berko. "But Kato made a firm decision that he didn't want to do anything violent or sexually exploitative, so that cut a lot of things away. Also, he had a lot of odd types of product-endorsement offers. He turned down a Kato doll offer, which was a million dollars just in advance and was supposed to be a lovable, huggable, 3-foot-tall Kato doll that comes in its own guest house." ("I wanted to do more credible things first," says Kato judiciously.)
Aside from the current local exposure of the radio show - a sort of real-life Wayne's World on FM, which The Los Angeles Times singled out as sucking the least of any new show in KLSX's switch to an all-talk format - Kato has done a few TV gigs and a lot of paid charity appearances where he is invited to let girls sit on his lap in the service of some good cause, and gotten a tsunami of press mentions every time he blows his nose. He is now putting together a scrapbook-style anthology of his more amusing encounters for publication. (He also sat for a series of interviews for a book project with writer Marc Eliot before deciding not to sell his story. I say writer Marc Eliot, although based on Kato Kaelin: The Whole Truth, the unauthorized work that Eliot eventually published, it doesn't really seem the mot juste. I still go back to his last page every now and again, to see whether I'm imagining things or whether he really, actually did use the phrase the hot seams of fame's black stockings. He did.)
This is not to say that Kato might not have been more opportunistic, given the opportunity; since the radio show has made him newly viable, he has posed (shirtless, but with the goods covered) for Playgirl and done guest shots on two comedy series, Fox's Mad TV and HBO's Mr. Show. And he's auditioned for stuff he hasn't gotten. "After a while," he says, "I started figuring out people just want to call me in for the curiosity." It is merely to point out that he has not exploited the murders, per se. Paradoxically, the frustration this has engendered has led to harsher treatment than that received by an unabashed headline-seeker like Faye Resnick. One article on Kato, for example, posits that if he hadn't moved, Nicole Brown Simpson might still be alive. Maybe so. And Kato might be dead. There might be intelligent life on other planets. Our lives might be guided from cradle to grave by the stars under which we're born. Kato might, as Louie Anderson believes, have been equally enjoyed by the public had he succeeded in getting through to them before the trial. You never know.
But mostly, people love Kato, and Kato loves people. One night, when Kato and I are standing on a street corner after dinner, a British guy in glasses rolls down the window of his black stretch limo, stopped at a light four lanes across the avenue, and shouts: "Kato! Kato! Come on! Get in the car!" "Where are you guys going?" shouts Kato. And the guy in the car, too far away to be understood, shouts back, and the drivers in the intervening cars roll down their windows to relay the answer operator-style: "Sanctuary! " "I'll see you guys there!" calls Kato affably. "Who was that?" I ask, and Kato answers, equally affably, "I have no idea. That happens all the time. All the time."
Although it has gone undetected for most of his life, Kato is uniquely suited by temperament and disposition to interact with an adoring public, signing autograph after autograph - and not just scribbling his name, but really making an effort to provide good value: "Pay to the order of Kato Kaelin," he writes on one guy's checkbook; "Roxanne, you don't have to put on the red light," he scrawls on the racing form of a young woman at the Hollywood Park race track who does, in fact, look like she might not be a stranger to the activities referred to in the song about her namesake. I ask another woman at the track, where Kato has been invited to spend the day by the owner, exactly why she wants this autograph. "It's for my uncle," she says. "Kato is his all-time idol. He wants to make it the way Kato did."
"At a trial?" asks Kato too quietly for her to hear, looking down, bewildered, even slightly hurt the only time in four days I see him less than composed by the attention. Since the murders, Kato has gotten stomach pains and had recurring nightmares that people are trying to kill him. But most of the time, he is infectiously cheerful; the manchild, puppy-dog impression he gave during his testimony is not the full portrait of the man, any more than the simple narrative in which real life has cast him as a house guest/opportunist/pinup is the story of his life. Boyish or not, he is capable of laying down the parental law. ("Tell Tiffany I heard what she said in the background, and I'm not happy," he says, while negotiating a pickup time at a friend's house. "You know what word. Put her on. Tiff? Nice mouth.")
Still, a large part of his charm derives from a willingness to play just like a little boy. "Mim?" he asks at the end of every phone call.
"Firstonetohangupisthegreatest! " he shouts, joyously crashing down the receiver, cracking himself up. I fall for this every time, and though this joie de vivre doesn't charm everyone (one of the more creative prank callers that haunt his radio show like little supermarket tabloid ghosts manages to blurt out, "Firstonetohangupwaslyingonthewitnessstand" just before getting cut off), it charms most who actually encounter it, some to an incredible degree.
To go anywhere with Kato is practically to witness cats and dogs coming up to him on the street to say how much they love him. (Actually, according to The National Enquirer, an orangutan from Florida's Monkey jungle that was shown tapes of the trial loved Kato and tried to give him a banana and some grapes.) An Arab sheik (Kato swears this is true) once offered to buy him for $10 million. Plus, girls love Kato. (And Kato loves girls. He is dating, but cautiously. "What's going on in my life right now," he says. "I would never make another person go through that with me.") His publicists receive 25 to 50 requests for interviews, appearances or information every day, and Kato-autographed blow-dryers are a popular item on the charity auction circuit. (People really lock onto the hair.)
While I wouldn't say it was worth $10 million to me, driving around Los Angeles with Offspring's "Come Out and Play" blasting from the radio and Kato drumming on the steering wheel, the dashboard, my knee ("I've been having a bad day," I said when he picked me up. "Well, it just got better! " he replied), is very pleasant in a Frankie Avalon/Annette Funicello sort of way. It's easy to see why a recent divorcée like Nicole Brown Simpson, not sufficiently free of her previous relationship to seek more than congenial company, would want him to be a part of her household, would be more deeply hurt by his defection than, from his point of view, the just-friends nature of the relationship warranted. "That was one of the things that attracted me to Kato. I liked his humor and his outgoingness, and he just seemed like a really good guy," says Patterson. "I grew up in a dysfunctional family, and those were the qualities I was looking for."
Perhaps the primary way in which Kato is poorly cast in the simple narrative of crime and death that brought him to prominence is that sadness is not his métier. Christened Brian and nicknamed Kato after the Green Hornet character, he was born and raised near Milwaukee in Glendale, Wis., and grew up in a boisterous, loving Catholic family -I picked him, correctly, as a former altar boy - the second youngest of six kids. From his mother, Isabelle, a retired nurse, he inherited both his flirtiness and his goofy humor; from his father, Al, a liquor distributor and restaurant owner who died in 1990, he learned his even temper.
The family is still close: The other five kids stayed in Wisconsin; his mother still lives in his childhood home, a ranch house full of pictures of children and grandchildren, with a big backyard. "He was bubbly and happy-go-lucky," remembers his mom. "He was always a kidder with the kids, and an entertainer. I think that's been true since he was in grade school, he always wanted to put on a show." "They'd always have the door open," says longtime friend Will Stumpe. "Kato's dad was a really cool guy. He was friends with all of Kato's friends and all his brother's friends everybody came over there. And every Christmas Eve, they'd have, like, 20 people over, and we'd always go there, never ring the doorbell, just walk right in. And his mom was always trying to feed you."
Growing up in this pleasant suburban outpost of the New Frontier, active, athletic and popular a prom king as well as a star pitcher and a quarterback - Kato formed the ambition of making it in show business, and even he cannot really say why this dream took hold with such permanence: "Because it's...it's just in me. I want to do this, I just do. That was my daydream: To go to Hollywood. To be discovered. I used to stay up and sneak behind the couch to watch Johnny Carson. Making my parents happy was a big thing in my life. And if they were laughing at Johnny Carson on his show, that must be good, so that's what I kept trying to do. I don't know if that's demented or not. I also think when I was dreaming it back then, I saw it as me hanging out with the cool people. That sounds so shallow, though."
Actually, it sounds innocent. For whatever reason, this dream undying was born, complete with credits. Dr. Skull, a flickering home movie and Kato's first film, which he shot at about the age 14 - in which he is bound to a chair and then escapes for a thrilling chase scene on plastic toboggans, followed by a karate fight on a roof, shot in inadvertent but daringly effective silhouette against the sky concludes with hand-lettered signs on cardboard reading: THE END. A KATO PRODUCTION. COMING SOON : THE RETURN OF DR. SKULL. MEET ME AT THE LAGOON. DEATH AWAITS YOU. SPONSED [sic] BY SCHLITZ, MY HOUSE AND THE WORLD. Kato says that he doesn't know why, but when he was growing up, the words A Quinn-Martin Production would often pop into his mind, unbidden. It spooked him.
After a couple of years at the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire, Kato followed his aspirations to California, where he continued his education at Cal State Fullerton, in Orange County. He was a virgin until he married, and he wed just about right out of college. "I was hiding this feeling inside that I wanted to go to Hollywood: 'I've got to do this thing, I've got to be in acting,' " he says. "So I took off, and I lived in this dump, the windows were broken, and I just remember being cold every night, and I had no friends, and I'm a friendly guy. I stayed, like, a year, and then my girlfriend at the time was with another guy, and I said, 'I'll marry you.' It was for all the wrong reasons, being lonely and insecure. It didn't work out, but we're friends now." Adds Patterson, "We were way too young. I'm happy for him now, and I'm really happy he has a job, because I'm planning on getting some child support. No, I'm joking. I'm glad because he has really wanted this for a long, long time."
The six months as Simpson's house guest notwithstanding, Kato has been paying the rent one way or another (waiting tables, the occasional acting gig, tours as a spokesman at car shows, running a casting business for extras, installing energy-efficient lighting, etc.) since he was 20. And in his trademark, disorganized way, he stayed cheerful and pursued his dream, as he does to this day.
Kato extends the hospitality of his couch to friend and Beverly Hills neighbor Trini Leon.
Lying by the pool at the Four Seasons Hotel, Kato is as blond as the California dream itself (a condition he first entered upon by using Sun-In on a spring-break trip to Florida in high school). "I can feel the comments," he says, leaning across the small table that separates our chaises longues and holds our pitcher of iced-tea-and-apple-juice, the (surprisingly tasty!) official cocktail of the Kato Kaelin Global Fan Club. "My instincts tell me. And the story is really what's going on around the pool while you're talking to me - if you could take a recorder and hear the comments that are made, then we'd have the story. I would give anything to hear what their comments are. And I know they're nasty"
Kato is, as it turns out, right about the comments, though I thought at the time that I was simply hearing some not-unjustified posttraumatic paranoia. Holly Hunter was on an adjacent chaise at the time, and having also seen Roger Daltrey and, if I'm not mistaken, Steven Spielberg at this very same pool, I would have assumed that it took more than celebrity to raise a comment around here. Indeed, other than the church where we attend noon mass the following day (Kato goes to church every Sunday, takes Communion, prays for the dead, the whole nine - he even gave me a dollar for the collection plate), this is the only place I go with Kato where he is not asked for an autograph.
But, shaky as Kato's instincts might be in some other regards (the Marc Eliot deal springs to mind, or possibly the Playgirl spread), they are, in this instance, unerring: "You were interviewing Mr. Kato the other day?" asks one of the hotel's waiters the next time I see him. "Did you notice any reaction? What terrible things every customer said? 'He's a vulture, that motherf---er. I'd like to get up and kick his ass.' I've never seen anything like it. It gave me goose bumps."
There is indeed something very creepy about this glimpse into the fantasy content of the powerful, pampered and evenly tanned, but also something indicative. Like Ross Perot, Kato is as despised by a certain segment of the elite as he is beloved by a certain segment of the people. Unlike Perot, however, he does not command enough power to insure at least a simulacrum of respect. For example, Bill Maher was not too proud to have Kato and whatever viewers he brought with him on his show; nor was he too shy to do numerous joint post-show interviews with the media attracted by Kato's appearance; nor did he seem to mind garnering extra attention for an appearance on The Tonight Show by having Kato do a walk-on. However, his willingness to be politically incorrect evidently not extending to the politics of his own career, he declined to be interviewed for this article. Requests to Kato's bestknown famous buddy, Charlie Sheen, though equally unavailing of an interview, at least produced an explanation: "We consider Charlie's association with Kato to be in the past," says Sheen's publicist, Jeff Ballard. "He's turning 30 and getting married, and we're putting the past behind us." Are they not still friends? "They're friends. But Charlie considers his friendships private," says Ballard. (Props to Louie Anderson, by the way.)
The grounds for this rather unusually unambiguous closing of the ranks, I assume, is the opportunism thing, coupled with Kato's tabloid taint, the rumors of debauchery and drugs. ("One thing I emphatically know about Kato is that he does not do drugs," says Patterson. "He never has, and he never will. He's never even touched a cigarette. He's too health-conscious and too moral. It's just not him. No way.") There is also a certain amount of disappointment with the lack of side-taking in his testimony, which neither alibied nor incriminated Simpson. "People were upset not because he didn't tell the truth, but because he didn't satisfy their expectations," says Michael Plotkin, Kato's entertainment lawyer. The Marc Eliot book, which is viciously critical of its subject and was the source of the not uncommon belief that Kato perjured himself, can't have helped much, either. In fact, despite a long introductory passage of self-regarding throat-clearing about Truth and Civic Duty, there is really nothing in Kato Kaelin: The Whole Truth that differs substantively from Kato's testimony.
But even without Eliot and without the DOCS FEAR KATO SUICIDE BID cover of The National Examiner ("I went on the radio to see how many higher bids I could get," says the object of the doctors' fear), the hostility Kato encounters is in many ways simply business as usual, a typical example of the minor, unlovely power plays that take place constantly in entertainment and in entertainment journalism, most of which are resolved in a way that is generally useful to all parties.
This state of affairs is hardly a news flash. (SHOWBIZ MORALITY FOUND TO BE PREMISED ON POWER! MEDIA OFTEN BUTT-KISSES TO PRESERVE ACCESS! GRAVITY BELIEVED TO BE FORCE HOLDING SOLID OBJECTS ON GROUND!) But it is, by and large, tacitly enacted, in the time-honored tradition of preserving the Hollywood dream and, as it were, ensuring that the hot seams of fame's black stockings are straight before their wearer goes out.
Ironically, if there is anyone in America less temperamentally suited to conduct his affairs on this do-me-before-I-do-you basis, anyone who believes in Hollywood as a land of enchantment and opportunity, it is Kato Kaelin. As a child, Kato used to try to dispel the normal bedtime fears by chanting silently, "I love God, I hate the devil, I love God, I hate the devil." In ordinary adult conversation he is sharp, funny and sexy in a wholesome way. But in terms of baseline values, this part of Kato's character - loving God and hating the devil, untouched by experience, pure as the virgin he was until he married - resurfaces. "He really does see the world through rose-colored glasses. All that bubble-headed, bleached-blond stuff sometimes I wonder if that's not too far off the mark," says Patterson with a laugh. This has no doubt been advantageous to Kato at times and certainly must have eased the 10 or so years he spent delivering the occasional pizza to casting agents with his head shot and résumé in the box.
However, in the context of a double-murder trial, which is, let's face it, the context in which Kato is primarily known, it is not an advantage. The appropriate amount of public remorse you're supposed to show a year and a half after the death of a friend is unclear, as is the manner in which you're supposed to show it - sackcloth and ashes, maybe. At the time of this writing, Kato is under a court order not to discuss his testimony, but the decision to regard his celebrity as separate from the murders, as two different issues, is purely his own, perhaps the only way he knows to keep the devil at bay.
This may not be what the public wants, but it also may not be the public's business. "You know, I hate the whole thing of the association of the murder - it's just terrible," he says. "And before the police came in, you know, I was a happy person, I wasn't miserable. Now I have stress every day, nightmares. I have the stress of people not liking me, and I see it and I hope it's something I can get rid of."
You're still skating around acknowledging that people are dead, I say.
"That, I have never forgotten, every day. I am not... I know that's there, it's every day. And I do regret it every day. It's not something that I want to bring out to the public, it's just my own... it's not something where I have to tell the press 'I regret this every day.' I'm aware of it, and I don't tell people when I'm praying. I don't think it's something that has to be known. And I choose not to share. I mean if I go around saying I pray every day about this, that's hypocritical."
"Well, it's a verse in the Bible. The people who are fasting and let people know they're fasting, and in prayer. God does not see that. God sees the person who doesn't say that, and God sees the person in the corner. Now by me telling you this, I don't want that printed, because then it will be hypocritical."
Too late, we're on the record.
"No, I mean that."
So did I. One word everyone who knows Kato uses to describe him is trusting. He is very trusting, and being, as he is, in a position of great fame but very little power, that's a dangerous attribute, though an endearing one. ("He's perfect for the buddy role," says his agent, Raphael Berko, hopefully.)
But the buddy always ends up getting the pie in the face, while the hero gets the girl, the gold and the happy ending. Kato, who is famous but not powerful, was created by the media as a passive celebrity, judging not but judged upon, a sitting duck. And though an active celebrity may become a passive celebrity (Hugh Grant recently demonstrated that he understood the demands of the role particularly well), the passive celebrity seeking to convert attention into achievement has got a tougher row to hoe.
Unlike most passive celebrities, unlike John Bobbitt, Joey Buttafuoco and Tonya Harding, Kato has not been an active participant in an alleged criminal act. He is an exceptionally likable person, lovable even, especially to children and babes. In other words, although it's impossible to say if he really has talent, he definitely has appeal, and many have made it with little more than that. He's willing to do straight-to-video, if that's all that's on offer; as before the trial, he just wants to do it, in whatever form it's doable. On the other hand, in a culture that has so consistently and eagerly used improved technological access as a means for creating objects of contempt, the real answer to the question "Can Kato Kaelin make it?" - not, perhaps, the most burning question to arise in modern times for anyone except Kato might well lie not in the quality of the supply but the nature of the demand.
Still, the heart of America, whatever that is, is notoriously inconstant, 90 percent approval ratings one month, you're outta here the next. "He's a very down-to-earth person," says Louie Anderson. "And I don't think he's really aware of what to do with his fame. The thing I enjoy the most is, people will say, 'Louie, why would you have that Kato Kaelin opening for you?' And I say: 'Well, it's smart, you know. It's a good business move. And also, he's a nice person, and I think he'd do well.' And they say, 'Oh, that's terrible.' And then five minutes later they go: 'Do you think I can meet him?' And it was always the same, no matter who it was."
A young man is staring at Kato (all together now: People really lock onto the hair) as he steps onto the elevator out at the Hollywood Park track, where we are returning to the special complimentary VIP table Kato was offered for the day by the owner who's just been showing us the paddock. This was not a totally successful little tour. "I thought they only allowed thoroughbreds here," snorted another paddock visitor with a comb-over and an interesting fullfacial pattern of rosacea, who did not, in a nutshell, exactly look like a Vanderbilt himself. ("Oh, no, no, no, no," he says, when I run into him back in the fancy seats and ask him why he felt this way. "I would never say that. I don't know him. I am a good friend of O.J.'s, though. No comment.") "Hey, you look like that Kato guy," says the young man on the elevator, concluding his hair review. "I like that guy," says Kato. "He's a good guy." And the elevator goes up.
Contributing editor Mim Udovitch wrote about 'Baywatch' in the March issue of ‘US.'